I was so focused on digging, I hadn’t noticed the juvenile Robin devouring the buffet of worms I had laid out on a platter.
He was getting so close to me I could see the glint in his eye and distinct amber spots on his head.
Maybe he was chirping at me to say thank you?
Or maybe he was greedy and asking for more worms!?
As I took a breath and observed the Robin, I didn’t feel any anxiety or overwhelm.
Life became simple and present.
All five senses were working.
The sound of the birds chirping and the wind whispering through the trees.
The sight of sunlight filtering through the dark clouds.
The sticky feel of soil between my hands.
The crisp taste of spring in the air.
And the distinct smell of fresh manure to fertilise the soil!
This is the idyllic reality of growing vegetables in a natural paradise like RHS Rosemoor.
And with Mim, our knowledgeable and incredibly patient RHS teacher, we were getting a first class education in how to grow vegetables.
I wanted to start growing vegetables because I wanted to be more self-sufficient and eat tasty, healthy food.
But the biggest lesson for me is that in growing vegetables we are in our natural state getting our vitamin N. We are fully immersed with creation and with the plants, the insects, the soil, the elements and even those pesky slugs!
Because we are nature and nature is a part of us, we are in our natural state, free from anxiety or worry and present on the task at hand.
This makes it a great way to connect with my true self and get clarity and perspective through our sixth sense: intuition, our internal internet.
It’s like connecting with the soil is connecting with your soul.
Gardening is a medicine that doesn’t need a prescription… and has no limit on dosage.
And given the context of the world we now live in, maybe this is what we need the most.
Maybe it’s actually the best activity for a natural, healthy life?
Evidence based benefits of growing vegetables
Avoid toxins and pesticides
In today’s supermarket, it’s very difficult to avoid pesticides, toxins, biocides and food preservatives (even on fresh produce) that are used to grow and store food. There is a big body of evidence relating increased exposure to these unnatural chemicals to an increase of chronic disease.
By growing your own, you can control the chemicals used i.e. none!
It’s not a fat blasting, high intensity, 6 pack sculpting military style exercise workout with 10 rounds of burpees… But that’s not really what most of us need anyway, despite what mainstream fitness marketing tells us.
When gardening we are squatting, hinging at the hips, lifting, bending, twisting, digging, walking, reaching, balancing, even jumping! We have to move with awareness and be conditioned to do these movement efficiently, but if we are then these are the movements our body craves.
We won’t get a six pack, but we will be more mobile and able to move better in practical day to day life.
Avoid GMO’s and help biodiversity
Most GM crops are designed to tolerate repeated spraying with a particular weed killer. Others produce toxins to poison insects. Biodiversity suffers and beneficial insects like lacewings, ladybirds and butterflies are harmed.
By growing your own, you eliminate the negative health consequences of GMO and the biodiversity loss.
Having a thriving ecosystem with worms in the soil, butterflies and bees pollinating the plants is not important, it’s essential to continue life on earth.
Mineral expert David Thomas found a severe drop in nutrient content in most foodstuffs in the UK over the last 60 years. His analysis has revealed a drastic drop in nutrient content (especially essential minerals) across almost all food groups.
Thomas sums up the severity in his conclusion:
What a dilemma we have found ourselves in. Research from all over the world has demonstrated the loss of micronutrients from our foods and provides evidence that this significantly undermines our health, contributing towards chronic physiological and psychological illnesses in people of all ages.David Thomas
By growing your own, you control the quality of the seeds, the fertility of the soil, the growing conditions and can pick and eat fresh.
So you can be sure you’re getting those vitamins and minerals you might miss out on in some supermarket food.
Longevity and happiness
Gardening is the epitome of the longevity and quality of life of the Blue Zones, the happiest, healthiest and longest living communities.
It encapsulates healthy living in just one activity: moving naturally, connection with nature, managing stress, creating, eating natural food and a sense of purpose.
People who live in these areas are gardening into their 90s and 100s.
Improved gut health
There is a big connection between our brain and our gut. The microbiome is the root of good health.
Having fresh food grown in fertile soil without pesticides means healthier gut bacteria and therefore better health overall.
For example, I can make loads of sauerkraut (fermented cabbage – one of the best foods for our gut!) with my giant cabbages to store them for longer. Sauerkraut is usually only available in pasteurised form which strips away the nutrients.
A simple recipe for sauerkraut is rubbing sea salt into washed and chopped cabbage. The key is the ratio of salt to be about 2% in relation to the weight of cabbage. A typical cabbage would weigh about 800g requiring a tablespoon of sea salt. Rub salt into cabbage for at least 20 minutes until moisture has been released and store in an airtight container for at least a few weeks to ferment.
Reduced risk of dementia
Dementia is expected to be more prevalent in the future.
Negative ion exposure
Negative ions are produced as part of the growing process of many plants.
Exposure to this and their life giving oxygen can greatly improve our mood and health.
Research shows negative ions may reduce symptoms of depression and improve cognitive performance.
We are more like plants than we may realise. They use sunlight during the process of photosynthesis.
But so do our own bodies to make vitamin D, because we are a part of nature and nature is a part of us.
We even get some vitamin D on cloudy days.
Up to a quarter of the UK population are deficient in vitamin D which is essential to support many bodily functions from fighting disease to immune system function.
It’s important to note that sunscreen inhibits our ability to absorb and make vitamin D and taking a vitamin D3 supplement is recommended during the winter months.
Learnings from a year growing vegetables
A community of kind, like minded souls made growing vegetables much more enjoyable. It’s helped drive home the realisation that I can’t do things all by myself.
We need to help others and for others to help us, whether that’s watering when we can’t get to the plot in hot weather or helping others to dig.
The most fun part was learning the different ways to sow seeds, getting my hands dirty in the soil, planting out and watching how quickly things grew.
The first produce I tasted was a fresh and crunchy gem lettuce with a few slugs hiding inside for extra protein…
Fresh peas and broad beans were also delicious.
The most challenging part was the slugs devouring all my beetroot, spinach and carrots, despite three attempts sowing them both in the ground and bringing the plants on before planting out. It wasn’t until late summer that I discovered an army of slugs hiding in the elephant garlic. They must have been waiting there all along to ambush my plants every night.
There are organic solutions which I intend to apply next year, from beer to citrus fruits to coffee! Using nemotodes a couple of times in the spring is also an effective practice applied at Rosemoor.
Interestingly, there were numerous occasions where I grew two plants exactly the same way, planted and watered exactly the same, yet one would thrive and another would barely survive. This appeared to be a common theme amongst fellow growers.
I guess this is a bit like life, no matter what anyone says you need some luck, a backup plan and mother nature always decides.
The most important learning was understanding that compost is like GOLD to gardeners. It affects so many things from fertile soil so plants can germinate to water retention to protect them in hot weather. So creating even a small compost bin and layering it with green and brown waste is one of the most important things for growing vegetables.
The timing of when you pick things is also important. A week or so too late is the difference between stringy runner beans or succulent beans and giant marrows and or sweet courgettes.
Anyone can grow vegetables
A garden is ideal but it’s possible to grow microgreens on a windowsill. Tomatoes grown in tubs need very little space.
RHS have a great beginners guide on growing vegetables to find out more.
One thing’s for sure, growing vegetables is like gold for your mind-body and soul!